Human Nature

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 231–248 | Cite as

Group Structure and Female Cooperative Networks in Australia’s Western Desert

  • Brooke Scelza
  • Rebecca Bliege Bird


The division of labor has typically been portrayed as a complementary strategy in which men and women work on separate tasks to achieve a common goal of provisioning the family. In this paper, we propose that task specialization between female kin might also play an important role in women’s social and economic strategies. We use historic group composition data from a population of Western Desert Martu Aborigines to show how women maintained access to same-sex kin over the lifespan. Our results show that adult women had more same-sex kin and more closely related kin present than adult men, and they retained these links after marriage. Maternal co-residence was more prevalent for married women than for married men, and there is evidence that mothers may be strategizing to live with daughters at critical intervals—early in their reproductive careers and when they do not have other close female kin in the group. The maintenance of female kin networks across the lifespan allows for the possibility of cooperative breeding as well as an all-female division of labor.


Martu Aborigines Division of labor Group composition Cooperation Australia 



This work has been generously funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0514560) and a Fulbright Postgraduate Award from the Australian-American Fulbright Commission. Drafts of the manuscript were greatly improved by comments and discussions with Eric A. Smith, Doug Bird, Bob Tonkinson, Donna Leonetti, and Steve Goodreau. We especially want to thank the residents of Parnngurr, Punmu, and Kunawarritji communities for their friendship, patience, and willingness to share the details and stories of their lives in the bush.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Department of Anthropological SciencesStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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